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National Integration, Identity Crisis and the Ruling Elite of Pakistan

The critical question still remains unanswered: is it the ruling elite or the sub-state elite responsible for the crisis of national integration and identity in Pakistan?

As we celebrate 65 years of our independence as a state, the spectre of ‘national integration’, ‘identity crisis’, coupled with labels such as ‘failed state’, ‘failing state’ continue to haunt our polity. Each year at Independence Day we make solemn pledges towards safeguarding our nation, working towards its health and stability and above all, guaranteeing its independence and sovereignty for the unforeseeable future, yet, every year the pessimism about Pakistan amongst its people continues to take hold. This pessimism is generated due to an abundance of factors including the weakening ability of institutions to deliver and resolve the basic socio-economic problems of the masses, institutionalized corruption, the failure of ruling elites, both political and military, a deteriorating public health sector and education, and rising inflation and debt. The picture of Pakistan, amongst its own residents, is one of gloom and doom. This certainly is not the right designated mindset if one is to move forward!

Two popular discourses inform the debate on national integration and identity crisis in Pakistan. The first approach associates the two phenomena as inextricably linked with the overtures of the Pakistani state. The reason(s) why a sense of Pakistani or Pakistaniyat is weak relates to the ruling elites, both political and military, failing to engender such a notion since independence. According to this approach, the sense of Pakistani or Pakistaniyat was relevant somewhere in the past but that is a bygone era and successive rulers of the country have widened the gap between themselves and the masses through nepotism and corruption resulting in the institutions of the state becoming weak. The weak institutions mean that no substantial change has come to transform the lives of people and instead a further deterioration in the quality of life is being witnessed in Pakistan and with it the perennial crisis of national integration and identity. The second approach, as opposed to the first, sees the crisis of national integration and identity from a bottom-up perspective arguing that the presence of divisive forces within the country, and also their collusion with foreign enemies of the state is the primary causal variable. According to this interpretation, successive ruling elites since independence have tried the best that they could but that their efforts have been thwarted by a recalcitrant sub-state ethnic elite. This sub-state ethnic elite is essentially regressive (maintaining their rule and authority in anachronistic tribal and rural fiefdoms) and have been a major internal challenge to the the authority and sovereignty of the Pakistani state.

What is national integration and what are its concomitants? National integration implies the amalgamation of national diversity into a common political culture which celebrates the diversity of its constituent units but then coheres towards a common ideational goal. Simply put, national integration accepts the diversity of the nation and does not discriminate between ethnicities or other minorities on purely cultural or racial grounds. A state which does not accept the diversity of its constituent cultural parts and expressively discriminates against ethnic group(s) is termed as an ethnic state. An ethnic state or ethnocracy is a negative for social cohesion for the institutions of the state and government privilege one ethnic group over others.

Is the Pakistani state an ethnocracy? The answer is no because the constitution of Pakistan and the overall legal structure does not expressly discriminate against any ethnic group. The Pakistani constitution does not privilege the Punjabis over the Pathans, Baloch, Sindhis, Siraikis and Mohajirs.
Is the Pakistani state an ethnocracy? The answer is no because the constitution of Pakistan and the overall legal structure does not expressly discriminate against any ethnic group. The Pakistani constitution does not privilege the Punjabis over the Pathans, Baloch, Sindhis, Siraikis and Mohajirs. This is in stark contrast to ethnocracies, such as Malaysia or Sri Lanka, whose constitution and legal structure elevates the Malays and Sinhalese over the Chinese and Tamils respectively. In contrast, the Pakistani state is not a Punjabi state constitutionally and legally. However, on the other hand, the Punjabis have benefited most from the Pakistani state as compared to other ethnic groups, most importantly, the Baloch, Siraikis and Sindhis. This has fuelled resentment on the part of non-dominant ethnic groups who necessarily see the Pakistani state as a Punjabi state. This argument could be understood as follows: Pakistan is not an ethnocracy in the theoretical sense but then the policies of the Pakistani state prove otherwise for the Punjabis have dominated the bureaucracy and military and hence they have gained more at the expense of other ethnic groups.

Similarly, an identity crisis plagues Pakistan. In this case, people do not identify themselves with Pakistan but with their own ethnic group first and hence denigrate the Pakistani identity. Abdul Wali Khan was once asked by a reporter whether he was a Pakistani or a Muslim or a Pathan? Wali Khan replied that he had been a Pakistani for thirty years, a Muslim for 1300 years and a Pathan for 5000 years. The identity crisis is also manifest in a confused sense of political culture which celebrates the religious aspect of Pakistani identity but then proclaims a secular form of politics and constitution. The religious identity, or the support for such political parties, has also been quite weak with electoral victories being bagged primarily by secular parties such as the PPP, PML (N), PML (Q) and MQM. The rhetoric of Islam and Pakistan has been the backbone of the ideational structure of the Pakistani state but when it comes to applying the tenets of Islam in terms of policy-making, the ruling elites have shied away from the religious project. Furthermore, the identity crisis in Pakistan is also manifest in the social domain, and relates to immigration. A Gilani Research Foundation poll highlighted that support for immigration in Pakistan is higher than the global average which stands at 34%. Why would this not be the case in a society where people are highly disillusioned, un-empowered and insecure, where they are more likely to be robbed of their personal belongings when out in the public, where the Mafia rules the roost even in major cities like Karachi, and where political parties’ workers are routinely killed for their respective allegiances. Who would want to live in and believe in the idea of Pakistan?

Academic and journalistic debates about Pakistan as a ‘failed’, ‘failing’ state have also been making rounds specially in the United States for the past year and a half. At the core of the debate is the contention that Pakistan has failed (or is failing) in the twin projects of state-building and nation-building. The institutions of the state are not what they were about 20-30 years back coupled with the fact that weak institutionalization is breeding movements of ethnonationalism on the part of non-dominant ethnic groups, not to mention, the threats which the religious groups pose to the social fabric of Pakistani society. On the other hand, optimistic views are also prevalent which depict Pakistan as an inhabitant of natural resources and raw materials (including one of the largest gold, copper and coal deposits), a large sea coastline and a glut of skilled human capital. The optimistic view places its optimism on the engendering of a sound and capable national leadership which may then lead Pakistan on to the road of development.

The critical question still remains unanswered: is it the ruling elite or the sub-state elite responsible for the crisis of national integration and identity in Pakistan? It is, indeed, sad in itself that 65 years after independence our sense of integration and identity remains weak. Although the alarmist would wont to answer in ways which absolves the ruling elites of all faults and blame the intransigent sub-state elite or the ignorant masses, it is the ruling elite that is to be blamed. A strong sense of national integration and identity is not generated through empty slogans or sloganeering but through policies which improve the lives of citizens. In Pakistan, sadly, the sense is rapidly deteriorating with the conditions in which people now find themselves in. There is nothing essentially lacking in Pakistan, in terms of natural resources and human capital; what is lacking is a commitment on the part of the ruling elites to drive the state forward. One hopes that the ruling elites realise that the idea of Pakistan is in a crisis and has to be rescued before it is too late. It has to be remembered that unity, like a plant or tree, has to be watered, nurtured and cultivated on the part of those ruling the state through effective political, social and economic policies. If this does not transpire another year, and many more years, will pass and with it the hope for a Pakistan which stands as one with unity, faith and discipline!

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